The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Saturday, June 29, 2013
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

Even though the “Great Recession” is officially over, the USA seems to be suffering from an economic malaise that goes back to at least the turn of the century. A recent article by Niall Ferguson sums it up in its title: The End of the American Dream. In sum, there is a widening distribution of income; the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer, with less and less ground between them. Those without college degrees or some form of technical training probably will just barely get by, money will be a problem throughout their lives. Even those with college degrees or usable training such as respiratory technicians or auto mechanics face declining opportunities. Too many college grads continue to live at home with their parents, working in service jobs way below their skill level.

The chances for moving up, for improving one’s economic well-being over time, seem to have been halted. Governments and employers are trying to back out of promises made to citizens and employees regarding health care and old age benefits, promises that now seem way too expensive to fulfill. Unemployment and partial employment rates have been way too high for the past 5 years, while average wage levels began to stagnate well before that.

In many ways, it appears that something has fundamentally changed in our economy over the past 40 or 50 years. Back in the 1700s,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:50 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Public Policy ...

I spent over 11 years of my life working for an organization whose mission was (and still is) to improve the lives of families and people living in the economically poor communities of a run-down Eastern city. The families and people living in these communities are mostly “people of color”, largely African-American but also some Hispanic and Carribean-Afro heritage mixed in. As a younger man, I wanted to devote at least some portion of my life and its energies into changing the world, fighting injustices, and “making real” the religious beliefs and values that my parents had instilled within me. (Obviously I felt that they hadn’t done such a great job of realizing and living these beliefs, and that I could do much better than they did).

That all came to an end over a decade ago. Since then I’ve remained in the same city, career-wise, but have shifted my career efforts to a major law-enforcement agency having jurisdiction over the communities that I had previously hoped to help “save”. Recently I asked myself, how much have I changed over the course of these two career terms? Why don’t I feel the same drive and excitement towards the notion of “saving the poor” anymore? Can the poor in question actually “be saved”?

As with many young people of a religious and politically liberal background, I once believed that the undesirable social and economic conditions generally experienced by black and Hispanic people within depressed urban neighborhoods  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:05 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 16, 2013
History ... Politics ...

I am not a Constitutional scholar like President Obama, but I did take a class in Constitutional Law while in law school (many years ago), and I mostly stayed awake in my high school and college American history classes when the Founding Fathers were discussed. Plus I’ve read a few things here and there about early American history, so I have a general sense of what the theory is behind the way that our government is shaped.

In a nutshell, the Founding Fathers liked the established local and state governments, and were quite worried about adding a third layer on top of this. But they knew that a federal government was needed, so they tried to design a system with “checks and balances”, as to avoid the bad, tyrannical things that an un-checked national leadership could do. Democracy was a key feature of this new federal system, as to maintain the buy-in of the common man (and yes, for the Founding Fathers it indeed was man, not woman; and white man, no Native Americans or slaves from Africa or elsewhere).

And yet, the common man could only have so much input. The Founders clearly did NOT want anything approaching pure democracy. They clearly felt that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:30 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, June 14, 2013
Zen ...

At the zendo the other day, our sensei gave a talk about enlightenment. He made the point that many people are attracted to Zen because they want and hope to achieve “enlightenment”, as a big whoop, a quasi-orgasmic experience of spiritual realization. Then he went on to say that “it’s not like that”; you can’t achieve enlightenment by work and study. It’s not like getting in shape to do a triathlon or bench-press 300 pounds. Enlightenment is more of a “surprise me” thing. It will happen, or not, in its own way, at its own time.

Our sensei took many of his thoughts from a book by Korean Zen teacher Zeung San, called “Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake”. I pretty much agreed with our local teacher (I don’t always, read on) and with the title that Seung San chose for his book. I take a rather Calvinistic approach to Zen. I.e., that Enlightenment is more a matter of “pre-destination”, or something other than “good works”. From the Buddhist perspective, “pre-destination” might be roughly equivalent to “karma” and the “momentum” of past lives. I would go even further than that. Taking a page from St. Paul, I would proclaim  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:40 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Religion ... Science ... Society ...

Yesterday I talked about the axion, a prime candidate for the particle that finally explains and solves the “dark matter problem” in modern cosmology. I’d like to add one more good thing about axions: no one would dare call them a “God particle”, as with the Higgs. Nonetheless, they will explain a bigger component of God’s creation than the Higgs does (i.e., all of dark matter, versus mass in a small portion of both regular and dark matter).

The whole “God particle” debacle goes back to a book published in 1993 by two atheists, physicist Leon Lederman and his ghost-writer Dick Teresi (The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question). In this book, Lederman says that he called the yet-undiscovered Higgs the “God Particle” because it would be crucial to understanding the structure of matter, and because it somehow reminded him of the Book of Genesis. The latter reasoning sounds very poetic, but a recent discussion between NPR reporters and Mr. Teresi seems to indicate that the motivation was more a matter of capturing the imagination of a publisher regarding all the money they could make on this book, given the snappy, attention-getting title.

So, the “God” that these intellectual atheists appeared to have had in mind was the God of Money. Why am I not surprised?

Another reason not to take the “God Particle” moniker for the Higgs very seriously  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:07 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 8, 2013
Science ...

Last year, the world of particle physics received some well-deserved public attention after several teams of physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson. If you recall, the Higgs particle confirms that there is an energy field responsible for giving mass to certain types of sub-atomic particles. Higgs is a bit misunderstood in public circles; under the popular interpretation, you are tempted to curse the damned Higgs field as you step off the scale whenever trying to lose a few pounds. Mass (like food calories) is a very dense form of energy, and gravity gives its attention to all forms of energy; given the energy density of mass, gravity gives a LOT more attention to massive things. More attention than some of us might like, especially after a few big meals and some sinful deserts . . .

But actually, you shouldn’t really blame the Higgs field if you’re not ready yet to go on The Biggest Loser. Most of the mass energy in the atoms and molecules that make up the world that we live in comes not from the Higgs field, but from the attractive “strong” forces between the quarks within the protons and neutrons of the atomic nucleus. The Higgs-derived mass is just a small fraction of the mass of most atoms.

Nonetheless, the discovery of the Higgs field and particle was very important to physicists, as it solved a variety of problems and contradictions within the Standard Particle Model  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Photo ... Zen ...

Here is the Buddha altar in my local zendo on a typical day. It could be 9 am or 9 pm, a bright sunny morning or a dark stary evening outside. At a Zen altar, the darkness always prevails. We bring flowers to honor the Buddha and his teachings, and to follow his teachings we sit for many hours with eyes closed in the silent darkness before this altar.

We call it “zazen”, which is a form of group meditation practice. In many ways it is a beautiful experience, one which I try to participate in at least once every week. Our “teachers” continually extol the virtues of zazen to us. And most of what they say makes sense to me.

But still . . . at some point, their focus on zazen makes Zen sound a bit like a one-trick pony. That one trick is to sit in the darkness in silence. Once again, I myself find much benefit in sitting in the silent darkness. But this is not where life is lived. A teaching that focuses the meaning of life around zazen makes just as much sense as placing these flowers  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:25 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, June 3, 2013
Personal Reflections ...

In my last blog entry, I talked about the fact that we live our daily lives with a generally hazy and limited memory of what went on in our past. We think we know our histories and could tell our story at most any time, but actually, we’ve already forgotten quite a bit of it, perhaps most of it. Obviously this gets worse as you get older. What also gets worse with age, for me anyway, is the instinct to be a junk hoarder. I’m one of those people who have a hard time throwing old stuff out, even when its no longer useful. And this is largely because I know that my past life is fading away, and I’m trying to hold on to it by piling up as many keepsakes and reminders of what my life was like say 10 or 25 years ago. In effect, I’m trying to curate a museum collection dedicated to the life and times of yours truly.

It’s interesting how different people have different philosophies on this. Some people like to sweep the decks and throw out anything that is no longer immediately useful. They like to live light, with no excess baggage, no sentimental (or possibly painful) reminders of what once concerned them in their comings and goings. Maybe they keep a small scrapbook, a few pictures, an important letter or two, a college and high-school yearbook, but otherwise, everything must go. Others hoard all sorts of broken contraptions that once were part of their daily life, old clothes that are ripped or out of fashion, papers from work places that they left 15 years ago, childhood toys, etc. Some experts say that it is a public health issue!

I’m a bit on the “hoarder” side, having saved much junk that I hardly ever look at but don’t want to get rid of (and have trouble finding room to store). There is some argument that an old checking statement or pay stub may someday be needed, or  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:20 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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